A press tour in late March of 2019 afforded me the opportunity to explore Marble Falls and the Texas Hill Country. Enticed by the promise of golden-cheeked warblers and black-capped vireos, I packed a small suitcase, borrowed a book on Texas birds from Bird Watcher’s Digest’s robust library, and prepared for a long-overdue return to Atzlan.
What follows is a series of suggestions for what you, fellow birder-traveler, can and should do when you find yourself in the Texas Hill Country, based on my own adventure. I highly recommend visiting while the wildflowers are blooming; the colors and smells they create are an absolute experience and make the perfect backdrop to a tour of the area.
Make Canyon of the Eagles Your Homebase
I cannot say enough good things about Canyon of the Eagles resort and, frankly, am not even sure where to begin. The property is gorgeous and expansive. The rooms are comfortable, with inspiring views of Lake Buchanan and no television sets, which encourages interaction with your companions. A complimentary reptile presentation featuring local snakes, lizards, and turtles informs, delights, and drives home a healthy fear of all things wild and venomous. The on-site observatory proved that, indeed, the stars at night are big and bright deep in the heart of Texas. A peek through a Celestron telescope gave me a good look at the nest of baby stars in the Orion nebula, and I learned more about the galaxy in just over an hour than I had in my 30 years of living in it.
I birded the grounds before breakfast at Canyon of the Eagles during my stay. Not wanting to stray far from the home base, I stuck mostly to the area around the central pool. My conformist efforts rewarded me primarily with blue-gray gnatcatchers, although a neighbor reported seeing chipping sparrows. Again, though, the property is very large and replete with bird-friendly habitat. A braver birder would probably see plenty of birdlife around the area before enjoying a breakfast of ancient grains or croquets madame at the on-site Overlook Restaurant.
Not to tinge this travelogue with tragedy, but I learned on my first morning at Canyon of the Eagles that the body of Bill Thompson, III, my employer, mentor, and friend, concluded its brief but valiant battle against pancreatic cancer the previous evening. His spirit was on to its next journey and, because I still had breath in my lungs in Burnet County, where the air is thick with the aroma of bluebonnets in late March, I had to soldier through this Texan excursion. I found myself trying to keep it together while simultaneously letting it all go during a gentle morning yoga class as the sun rose over Lake Buchanan. White pelicans and unknown gulls cruised over the placid water. Thank you, Bill.
Cruise Up the Colorado River
By far the birdiest event of the trip was a cruise up the Colorado River and onto Lake Buchanan. Before we started the tour with the Vanishing Texas River Cruise, I thought I spotted a common yellowthroat perched in a tree on the riverbank, and could have sworn I saw a shadow in the shape of a greater roadrunner skittering across a riverfront property’s driveway.
Standing aboveboard at the prow, I saw the tiniest specks flying low, slow, and in linear formations over the horizon. It wasn’t until much later on the tour that I saw that these were thousands of white pelicans dropping in along the shore. They floated on the water. They stood on the beach. Several were slowly flapping together in a sort of vertical spiral, not unlike a loosely formed school of fish. Amazing.
Besides white pelicans, there were your standard great blue herons, white egrets, and double-crested cormorants. A long, multi-year drought had ended two years before, and many of the willows that had grown up when the river was narrower and shallower were still standing, albeit now underwater. American coots scooted around the watery treetops.
Our bird-knowledgeable captain pointed out an osprey and what I later learned was a zone-tailed hawk flying along the bluffs. My inadequate Texan bird knowledge combined with a moment of not hearing the loudspeaker clearly had me absolutely puzzled by what this black raptor with boldly patterned tail feathers might be. If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the birdlife of the Texas Hill Country, do not forget your field guide at home. I felt a small, painful twinge of pride at being able to identify the Canada geese floating between Fall Creek Falls and Ceremonial Rock as we made our way homeward. The backdrop, at least, was breathtaking.
Enjoy Craft Brews with Backstories
Our press tour included visits to some fine Marble Falls oases. As you probably know, birding is thirsty work. The up-and-coming Bear King Brewing Co. features an interior that some locals say reminds them of the hip Austin scene. The beers there are creative and refreshing, and one even bears a bird-related moniker. The Bird’s Word is a nod to a Native American legend concerning the symbiotic relationship between the orchard oriole and the pecan tree. An oriole once warned the tree that gave it shelter that a storm was coming, hence the beer’s name. It’s a dark and rich pecan porter-style ale, probably enjoyed best on a chilly evening rather than after hot hours spent birding in the field.
If you enjoy Belgian-style beers and your schedule allows, definitely make a trip to Save the World Brewing Co. Founded by two pediatricians, this 100% philanthropic brewery donates all of its profits to charity. Dave and Quynh Rathkamp’s experience in medical precision is apparent in their beers’ quality, and Quynh’s enthusiasm and overall joie de vivre guided us through the three-flight tasting tour of all their available offerings. Every style on tap at the brewery is flavorful and refreshing, and there’s a tetherball court outside to keep you occupied if the nest box in the driveway isn’t active.
Explore Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge
There were plenty of wonderful libations enjoyed on this tour, but beer goggles give you only so many good views of birds. Outdoor activities resumed the next day when my fellow journalists were outfitted with binoculars in the parking lot of the Doeskin Ranch Public Use area. Maybe…!,I thought. The river cruise had been fruitful, but golden-cheeked warbler and black-hooded vireo were my target species and had been, so far, elusive. Our guides provided insights into local land management practices, with mentions of the catch-and-kill feral pig program giving some explanation to the booming black and turkey vulture populations.
I earnestly scanned the trees for warblers. When I heard that the third woodcock ever recorded on the Edwards Plateau had been spotted in the area with a chick the previous week (the other two instances were in 1880 and 2005), I scrutinized the undergrowth. It once took me 20 minutes to find a single woodcock one morning at Magee Marsh, despite ample and generous help from a crowd of birders. I would not see two (and one of those being quite small) while passing through the Balcones Canyonlands at midday, a lonely birder among enthusiasts of other outdoor diversions.
I did, however, see a male black-chinned hummingbird performing a swooping, U-shaped courtship display as we neared the end of our loop. The iridescent purple sheen was a balm for mildly frustrated eyes. A second black-chinned appeared when we paid a visit to the Shin Oak Observation Deck. We were looking for black-capped vireos, and the scrubby oaks there are kept at a height most conducive to nesting, but this target bird, like the golden-cheeked warbler, was nowhere to be found. Poor luck and unfortunate timing, but a morning of leisurely hiking never really feels like a waste, anyway.
Hike Inks Lake State Park
Windy weather that same afternoon precluded a kayak tour of Inks Lake State Park, but the guided hike around the park that my press group received instead was absolutely aces. We trekked around pink Valley Spring gneiss islands, took in the lakes of bluebonnet and Indian paintbrush, learned how the fierce and hardy yucca plant is an excellent metaphor for the Comanche people, and witnessed cochineal (the bugs that make your red food dye) clustered on prickly pear pads. We saw the 50-year-old juniper trees whose bark is a key element of golden-cheeked warbler nests. However, there were no warblers to be found.
I found myself experiencing waves of excitement and disappointment when a western-based journalist excitedly asked, “What’s that red bird?” I unreasonably hoped against hope that she had spotted a vermilion flycatcher. It was, in fact, a male northern cardinal. I resist saying only a cardinal; BT3 pointed out to me on a lagoon tour in Belize the previous October that, although cardinals are common backyard birds in Ohio, encountering cardinals (as we were that day on the lagoon) can be a rare treat for other folks who don’t get to see them every day. Fair enough. Thank you, Bill.
Appreciate Local Art in Historic Downtown Marble Falls
Highland Lakes Creative Arts invites sculptors around the country to install their work in Marble Falls’ historic downtown district through its Sculpture on Main program. The pieces involved cater to a wide range of aesthetics, but, as a bird watcher, I considered myself lucky to find a bird sculpture when our press group was led around the area. Early Bird by Jason Crosier features an easily identifiable grackle (note the tail and distinctive eye) with a worm hoisted in its upward-pointing beak. Per the artist’s statement: “The mighty grackle; the unofficial ambassador for central Texas. Their numbers grow much like the population swells from the influx of new Texans. Beloved and hated, it’s difficult to glean the true nature of these birds, but you can’t deny their grit.” What a great testament to both Texans and Texas birdlife.
A rather fun anecdote: The same evening of our exploration of local public sculptures, after dinner on the patio of the lovely Rae’s Rbar & Grill, my group was treated to ice cream at It’s All Goode. While I was snarfing down a Texas-sized cone of Bluebell’s take on “Superman” ice cream (a medley of brightly dyed red, yellow, and blue dairy that can be difficult to find outside of the Midwest and, because the dye transfers so vibrantly onto the teeth, tongue, and lips, is a terrible choice when socializing), a photojournalist from a little farther down the Great State of Texas approached me with his own anecdote about birds. Several years ago, a lady had called his newspaper fearing that local Satanists were performing strange rituals in her backyard. It seemed that unseen hands for reasons unknown were impaling insects on thorns in the bushes around her house. The paper ran the story without consulting anyone who might have recognized that this is simply how loggerhead shrikes eat, much to my fellow traveler’s embarrassment. I’ll graciously withhold names and locations to protect the identities of everyone involved (but if you see this, thanks for the blue-lipped laugh, David).
Dangle Above Treetops…Maybe
The very last activity of my tour of Burnet County was an impromptu visit to the Spider Mountain Bike Park. Still floating on journalistic camaraderie, the delicious ancient grain breakfast bowls at Canyon of the Eagles, and the residue of glorious concoctions involving prickly pear and tequila, I was game to join my fellow travelers in signing a waiver to have a spin on the park’s newly installed mountain bike lift.
A more rugged take on the traditional ski lift, the chairs are designed to carry bikes as well as human passengers to the top of the mountain. I reverse-hopped on and was thrilled to fit in one final adventure.
Unfortunately, my lifelong acrophobia kicked in when I was about 30 feet above the ground and realized there were no belts, bars, or restraints keeping me from a swift and deadly plummet. My stomach turned into leaden jelly, my hands became vice clamps, all desperate hope of getting off was immediately abandoned. My two chair companions were sympathetic and supportive if not mildly amused. “If you want to survive, you need to stay calm,” I told myself. This mantra was probably the best takeaway of all the generous swag items I received on the press tour, apart from the bottle of Save the World Brewing Co.’s Princips Pacis Belgian tripel.
The view from the lift as you rise up the mountain is a breathtaking vista of Burnet County’s scrub, hills, and lakes, and it really is a novel thing to be dangling high above the treetops. I’d like to think that a bolder birder hoisted over the pines of Spider Mountain would be able to wield a binocular to spot some Texan specialties from a whole new angle. However, since I was incapacitated with blind terror and only able to grab a few loose phone shots once we began our descent, it really is not an activity I can personally endorse.
I regret that I was unable to get my golden-cheeked warbler and black-capped vireo during the trip. This can be chalked up to poor scheduling and time constraints (there’s just so much to see in the area!), but my inexperience with Texas birds didn’t help matters. I count myself so lucky to have been given the opportunity to experience the beautiful Texas Hill Country. Being able to witness how birdlife is so interestingly woven into the local culture was such an eye-opening experience. So if you can, when you can, please visit Burnet County.